Fiction comes from your imagination. Nonfiction comes from the world. Beyond that, understanding the categories of books that you write can help you understand your work, your audience, and your professional mission better. To that end, we’ve compiled a list of genres and subgenres, along with some advice about how to work within the categories the reading world has created.
Top Level: The Main Literary Genres
You can get into long conversations over beers about what genre is or isn’t, how many genres really exist, and whether or not genre is important to the craft in the first place. That’s true, but it doesn’t matter. In the book industry, books get categorized several main literary genres. Those genres are:
- Crime: stories that fictionalize crime, criminals, or solving crimes
- Fantasy: stories that use magic or other supernatural elements as a major point, and often take place on imaginary worlds
- Romance: stories where the main focus is on relationships and sexual or romantic love
- Science Fiction: futuristic stories, often dealing with extrapolation of scientific or sociological ideas
- Horror: stories that frighten or disgust, or at least try to
- Literary: stories where the artistic value of the writing takes precedent over the story being told
- Realistic: stories that could happen in real life
You also have several age-based literary genres: picture books, chapter books, middle grade, and young adult. Within these genres you can find examples of all the genres listed above, but most of the time they’ll be shelved in the bookstore or library by age range rather than the other genre.
Second Level: Subgenres and Crossovers
But wait! That’s not all! Most genres also have subcategories within them, or common ways authors cross conventions from multiple genres together. Sometimes these appear on the shelves in stores. Other times they help you communicate what your book is when talking to somebody or writing a description.
Listing all the subgenres and crossover genres would be impossible, but here are some of the most popular and important.
Crime subgenres include mystery, thriller, police procedural, courtroom drama, cozies, hardboiled, and legal thrillers. Although they don’t technically involve crime, most people categorize general suspense, military thriller, and medical thriller in this genre because they follow similar tropes and attract similar readers.
Fantasy subgenres include high fantasy, low fantasy, portal fantasy, urban fantasy, gothic fantasy, fairy tale retellings, sword & sorcery, sword & sandal, and historical fantasy. Many of the “-punk” genres fit here, like mythpunk, stonepunk or gearpunk.
Romance subgenres first follow all the other genre. You have criminal romance, fantasy romance, science fiction romance, horror/paranormal romance, literary romance, and contemporary romance. Other subgenres fall along historical periods like British Regency or Old West. Erotica is another subgenre, itself split into subgenres according to kink. The less said about that here, the better. This is a family site.
Science Fiction subgenres include hard sci-fi, soft sci-fi, military sci-fi, space opera, dystopian, apocalyptic, parallel universe, dying earth, alternate history, time travel, and space exploration. Most of the “-punk” genres that don’t fit in fantasy go here: cyberpunk, steampunk, teslapunk, etc.
Horror subgenres include supernatural, serial killer, ghost, gothic, slasher, zombie, body horror, folk horror, and psychological horror. You also get crossovers into all the other genres: a zombie horror novel set on a spaceship is zombie science fiction horror.
Literary Fiction subgenres include contemporary, experimental, philosophical, historical, satire, drama, and allegory. Of all the genres, this is the least likely to see subdivision in bookstores or conversation.
Realistic Fiction subgenres include animal stories, problem novels, family novels, sports fiction, survival fiction, adventure fiction, school novels, coming of age, issue books (books about controversial subjects), and chick-lit.
The lists can go on and on, especially when you combine two subgenres to make a third thing happen. Also keep in mind that you can add “comedic” to every item on this list. Yes, that means you can end up writing something that sounds like a Starbucks order: “an experimental supernatural horror gearpunk crossover with issue and satirical side plots”.
What if I Don’t Write in Any Genre?
Many writers will say their writing is unlike anything else, and doesn’t fit in a particular genre.
The overwhelming majority of those writers are kidding themselves. Very few books fit perfectly into one niche or the other, but it’s pretty easy to tell where it would land at Barnes & Noble. Use that guideline if you’re truly unsure where a particular book fits.
What Genre Does for Your Audience
After reading the list above (which is a very incomplete list — some of the lists out there include thousands of micro-genre labels), you might wonder what the point of genre really is.
The main thing genre does for readers is helps them identify the basics of what a book might be about. They finish a book they liked, and want to know what books are similar to that book. Genre and subgenre help readers do just that.
If you loved a supernatural horror/cyberpunk crossover, then you can use the web, shelves at the store, and fandom groups to identify other books and authors who write in the supernatural horror/cyberpunk crossover niche. It’s how people have identified and categorized reading experience for over a century, and this core reason won’t change any time soon.
What Genre Does for You
As an author, you use the flip side of the coin I just listed above. First, it helps you identify yourself and your writing as similar to other books. If you wrote a comedic police procedural fantasy novel, you can look up the influential authors of comedic police procedural fantasy novels and begin to court their fans.
The same goes for writing your book descriptions on Amazon, and seeking reviewers to post about your work. Knowing the genre labels that give the most accurate depiction of your work helps you narrow your focus for the strongest result.
Finally, you will find genre labels on forums, Facebook groups, convention meetup rooms, and other places where you can interact with fans of what you write. It’s an excellent way to meet new people who like to read the kind of stuff you write.
Genre vs. Category
Genre and Amazon Category are similar, but they aren’t the same thing. Use genre when thinking about your craft and your audience, and Amazon Category when marketing for sales on Amazon. You can read this article here (or this one here) for more on Amazon Categories, and how you can combine them with genre to supercharge your sales. Be sure to check out our step-by-step article on choosing categories if you need to.